Winter storm grounds more than 2,000 flights, BWI closes a checkpoint due to TSA staffing shortage

Airlines canceled more than 2,000 flights scheduled for this weekend as a rapidly-moving winter storm threatened an area from the Midwest to New England with snow, ice and heavy rain, snarling travel and straining airports already grappling with long lines and staffing shortages in the partial government shutdown.

More than 1,100 flights in and out of Chicago’s two main airports were called off on Saturday and more than 400 Sunday flights to and from Boston were canceled, according to flight-tracking site FlightAware.com.

American Airlines, United Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Delta Air Lines and Spirit Airlines are allowing travelers booked this weekend to or from more than 60 of airports in the Midwest and Northeast, including those serving New York and Boston, to change their tickets to fly as late as Jan. 23 without paying a fee. Cancellation fees were also waived. Southwest Airlines doesn’t have a date-change fee but the airline said travelers with tickets to cities that will likely be affected by the storm can fly up to two weeks later without paying a difference in fare.

Airlines urged travelers to check airline websites for travel information. Even if flights aren’t canceled in the storm, travelers can expect delays as planes are de-iced.

The travel disruptions come amid an already higher-than-usual absence rate among Transportation Security Administration airport screeners, who have been without regular paychecks since the partial U.S. government shutdown began on Dec. 22. The TSA said the unpaid workers have said they can’t come to work because of financial strain. They missed their first paycheck a week ago.

The staffing shortages have been prompting airports including at in Atlanta, Houston, Washington, D.C., and Miami to temporarily consolidate checkpoints.

A shortage of screeners due to “excessive callouts” prompted the closure of a security checkpoint at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport on Saturday afternoon, TSA said.

The TSA said the absentee rate on Friday of its 51,000 officers was 7 percent, up from 3 percent a year ago. Waits topped the agency’s standard 30 minutes at checkpoints in Atlanta, the country’s busiest, Seattle, Newark and Denver but most travelers waited less than half an hour, the agency said.

The TSA workers are among the some 420,000 government employees who have been deemed essential and have been ordered to work during the shutdown.That group also includes air traffic controllers.

Earlier this week the Federal Aviation Administration said it was calling back to work more than 3,000 aviation inspectors and engineers that had been furloughed. Airports, airlines and local businesses have been offering free meals to the unpaid TSA officers and other government employees working without a check. The general public has shown up at some airports with food and other donations.

American Airlines’ credit union is offering 1 percent loans of $1,200 or the amount of a single net paycheck to airport security workers.

Airports are bracing for an increase in travelers during the busy Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend. The TSA estimates it will screen 8 million travelers from Friday to Monday, an 11 percent increase compared with the holiday weekend in 2018.

Earlier on Friday, a Southwest flight from Las Vegas overran the runway upon landing at Eppley Airfield in Omaha, Nebraska, briefly closing the airport. Southwest said no injuries were reported among the 150 travelers and six crew members.

Federal forecasters expect a blast of bitter cold to follow the storm, which could create additional bad road conditions and slow commutes.

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